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Army, PKK clash in eastern Turkey in blow to peace process

The incident happened after Turkish military tried to prevent a political PKK gathering from taking place
PKK fighters have been staging a decades' long insurgency in Turkey aimed at more autonomy (AFP)

Turkish troops clashes on with more than two dozen fighters from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on Saturday.

Four soldiers were killed, in what is being seen as a large blow to the already struggling peace process between the government and the PKK.

The army sent armed helicopters, reconnaissance jets and a commando unit to the Agri region in southeastern Turkey in an attempt to force back the PKK fighters who were continuing to fire on Turkish army positions well into the afternoon and early evening, the Turkish military said in a statement on its website.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, lashed out accused the PKK of seeking "to dynamite the peace in our country and undermine the peace process".

"I strongly condemn this attack. The clashes are continuing. Twenty-five terrorists are currently fighting our troops," Erdogan said in a televised speech in the western city of Sakarya on the Black Sea.

"The attack aims to shatter the environment of peace in the country, and sabotage the solution process," he added, referring to the government initiative launched in early 2011.

The Turkish Interior Ministry also released a statement saying "the attack during the deployment of troops to the region justifies our sensitivity regarding public order, and the necessity for the measures taken".

"All institutions of our government are determined to take and implement all necessary measures in the face of such incidents which undermine public order and jeopardize the security of our citizens," it said.

The army said troops had been despatched to the district of Diaydin in Agri after receiving intelligence of a planned "festival" to promote the "separatist terror organisation".

This is official shorthand for the PKK whose actual name is never used by the authorities.

However, once the army arrived, the PKK fired on the soldiers and the fighting quickly escalated.

"But in the initial fire four of our soldiers were wounded in different places. Reconnaissance aircraft, armed helicopters and a commando unit have been dispatched to the area,” the army said in a statement.

The unrest marks a rare spike in violence as the government seeks to make peace with the PKK after a decades-long conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) that acts as an intermediary between the government and PKK, called the clashes "a sad and worrying development".

"A detailed investigation is needed to find out exactly what happened," he said in televised comments.

The HDP denies that it has PKK members amongst its ranks and insists it will only work to facilitate the “process of disarmament” once a peace deal is finally agreed.

The government's pointman on the peace process, Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan, said he strongly condemned the "terrorist attacks".

"The will of the people cannot be put at stake for a mix of political pressure and violence. Opening fire will backfire on itself," he wrote on Twitter.

The PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan this year called on militants to take steps to lay down their arms in what many see as a historic breakthrough in the peace process.

The PKK initially fought for independence for Turkey's Kurds but later softened its demands to seek greater rights and autonomy. Some 40,000 people are believed to have been killed due to the conflict.

The head of the PKK's paramilitary forces Cemil Bayik, who is based in northern Iraq, told German media last week that the PKK did not want to fight Turkey anymore.

However there have been signs the peace process has been stumbling in recent months as Turkey's political forces prepare for legislative elections on 7 June.

During his address in response to the Saturday clashes, Erdogan also accused an unspecified political opponent of trying to fan tensions ahead of the election in order to win votes.

"This party is trying to procure votes through the activities of this terrorist organisation. The way to democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms is not through weapons; it is through the ballot box," he said.

In a tight battle, the HDP is seeking to win over 10 percent of the vote to qualify for direct representation in parliament.

Should it succeed, this could wreck the plans of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to win a constitutional majority to change the basic law and create a presidential system under Erdogan.